For artists in theater, music and dance, there are few honors higher than a gig at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, in Washington, D.C.
But with the Center’s stage gone dark because of the coronavirus pandemic, the next best thing might be an online, national showcase under that institution’s banner.
Such is the privilege of two Pittsburgh-based dance companies working with the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, in East Liberty. Staycee Pearl dance project (SPdp) and the duo slowdanger provided the moves for “Penn Avenue Alive!,” a 48-minute video shot in Pittsburgh that premiered Nov. 17 as part of the Kennedy Center’s Arts Across America series.
Arts Across America is spotlighting one music, dance or theater artist or group from each state and U.S. territory (with additional work curated by the arts-and-activism group Sankofa). The project is intended to foreground community arts leaders, unique regional styles, and organizations and individuals focused on social justice.
The Kelly Strayhorn was recommended to the Center by its longtime partner the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, and the theater in turn chose SPdp and slowdanger, both of whom it has worked with frequently over the years.
“I always turn to dance first. That is really Kelly Strayhorn’s anchor,” said Joseph Hall, the theater’s executive director.
SPdp has performance credits around the country and recently received a National Dance Project grant to develop an upcoming work. Last year, founder Staycee Pearl became the first Black woman commissioned to choreograph new work for Pittsburgh Ballet Theater. (The production, set for spring, was postponed because of the coronavirus.)
For its contribution, SPdp adapted “sol.,” an existing work whose title is pronounced “soul” to reflect the genre of music that inspired it. Pearl worked with digital-media artist Arvid Tomayko to create a four-dancer version in which Tomayko’s roving camera served as almost a fifth dancer. “It’s like the viewer is a part of the dancer group,” she said.
The piece features original music by Soy Sos, who is Pearl’s artistic partner and spouse. It starts with the dancers (all in facemasks) dancing on the Penn Avenue sidewalk that fronts the theater; the camera follows them inside for a passage in the lobby and then dramatically lit sequence amidst the theater’s seats and on its stage.
The second half of “Penn Avenue Alive!” moves up Penn to Friendship, and the Kelly Strayhorn’s Alloy Studios, for a performance of “For Shadowing,” a new work by slowdanger. The team of Anna Thompson and Taylor Knight was named one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” in 2018. “For Shadowing” is an atmospheric duet incorporating innovative lighting schemes and singing. The video also includes contributions by VJ and projection-mapper ProjectileObjects.
Arts Across America began in July, with new pieces from contributors set to premiere daily Mondays through Fridays for 20 weeks, through Dec. 11.
Hall said that for Kelly Strayhorn to be associated with the internationally known Kennedy Center was a validation.
“To be placed on that kind of platform means an incredible amount,” he said. “It means the work that we’re doing is reaching places, is reaching audiences, is actually living in Pittsburgh and outside of Pittsburgh.”